Genesis of the Cultural Climate Framework

The Cultural Climate Framework has its origins in my work in the field of ethnomusicology. Between 1996 and 2002 I undertook ethnographic fieldwork to ascertain the systematic social and ethical dynamics in the informal contexts and communities of Irish traditional music. Key to this work was evaluation of the relational implications of increased acquiescence among Irish musicians to the discourses, values, and practices of copyright and intellectual property.

Interdisciplinary theoretical analysis in ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology, institutional economics, and social psychology led me to develop a general systematic theory for specific practices of ‘enclosure’, that is, an expansionary social dynamic driven by the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty, involving the acclelerative and intensifying commodification of everyday life (see McCann, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2012). ‘Enclosure’ became, in effect, shorthand to speak of unhelpful dynamics of excessive institutionalisation, bureaucratization, or administration within organisations.

In postdoctoral research I built on this ethnographic and theoretical work, turning to sociolinguistic register theory (see, e.g., Halliday 1978; Butler 1999, and many others), affect theory (see, e.g., Brennan 2004, Ahmed 2010, Grossberg 2010 and others), and cultural history (especially Raymond Williams’ work on ‘structures of feeling‘) in order to develop the general framework.

Counterintuitively, the fact that this research originated with a non-organisational focus is what makes it so well suited to the analysis of culture change in organisational dynamics. If the theoretical tools used to analyse culture change in organisations are forged in the empirical analysis of organisations, then the results will likely be primarily descriptive in character. Description tends to be of limited operational efficacy in the necessarily comparative analysis of cultural climate and of little guidance in trying to understand our own participation in the enactment of culture change.

Because all organisations rely on a subsystem of substantially informal human relationships and interactions, any effective model of culture change in organisations needs to be based on principles that are also inclusive of governing dynamics of attitude, behaviour, and social interaction in explicitly non-organisational culture. Indeed, I would argue that the spectrum of less formal qualities of relationship in an organisation are the very heart of possibility in culture change. You cannot construct a clear roadmap for culture change when they are excluded, or even marginalised, in the model being used.

Associated Reading

Roger D. Abrahams. 2005. Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices. University of Pennsylvania Press.

David Abrams. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.

Asif Agha. 2000. “Register”. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9(1-2): 216-219
—. 2005. “Voice, Footing, Enregisterment.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 38-59

Sara Ahmed. 2010. “Happy Objects.” In The Affect Theory Reader. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 29-51. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Richard Bauman and Charles Briggs. 1990. “Poetics and Performance As Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life.” The Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 59-88.

Teresa Brennan. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lance St. John Butler. 1999. Registering the Difference: Reading literature through register. Manchester and New York.

Jenny Cheshire and Allan Bell. 2003. “Register and style.” In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics Vol 3. William Frawley, ed. 454-459. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Todd Cronan. 2012. “The Aesthetic Politics of Affect.” Radical Philosophy 172: 51-53. URL: (accessed Dec 2012)

Jean Debernardi. 1995. Book Review: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Register. Douglas Biber and Edward Finegan, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 385 pp. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(1): 97-99.

Anind K. Dey. 2001. “Understanding and Using Context.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 5:4–7

Roy Dilley, ed. 1999. The Problem of Context. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Peter Fawcett. 1997. Translation and Language. Linguistic Theories Explained. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.

Kathleen Ferrara, Hans Brunner, and Greg Whittemore.1991. “Interactive Written Discourse as an Emergent Register.” Written Communication 8(1): 8-34.

Anita Fetzer. 2004. Recontextualizing context: grammaticality meets appropriateness. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Mohsen Ghadessy, ed. 1988. Registers of Written English: Situational Factors and Linguistic Features. London and New York: Pinter Publishers.
—.  1993. Register Analysis: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Pinter Publishers.

Charles Goodwin and Alessandro Duranti, eds. 1992. Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lawrence Grossberg. 2010. “Affect’s Future.” In The Affect Theory Reader. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 309-338. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tomie Hahn. 2007. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Michael A. K. Halliday. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London, New York: Edward Arnold.

David Howes. 2003. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brian Massumi. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lilia Savova. 2005. “Register.” In New Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 2. Philipp Strazny, ed. 898-899. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Ben-Ami Scharfstein. 1989. The Dilemma of Context. New York: NYU Press.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kathleen Stewart. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Paul Stoller. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
—. 1997. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Marilyn Strathern. 1987. “Out Of Context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28: 251–281.

Nigel Thrift. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. London: Routledge.

Anna Trosborg, ed. 1997. “Text Typology: Register, Genre and Text Type.” In Text Typology and Translation. Benjamins Translation Library 26: 3-24. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jean Ure and Jeffrey Ellis. “Register in Descriptive Linguistics and Linguistic Sociology.” In Issues in Sociolinguistics. Oscar Uribe-Villegas, ed. The Hague, Paris, New York: Mouton Publishers, 1977. 197-243.

Teun A. van Dijk. 2009. Society and Discourse: how social contexts influence text and talk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raymond Williams. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press
—. 1979. Politics and Letters. New York: Schoken Books.










Cultural priming, the “adjacent probable”, and changing the cultural equation

Within any particular culture, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that culture or upon having moved to another). When a cultural climate is dominated by the dynamics of enclosure this is one of the primary contributing factors in the acclerative intensification of enclosure. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I have developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self- organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of my Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

Importantly, the gravities of the adjacent probable within enclosing organisational environments are much stronger on account of the high directivity of the corresponding cultural climate. In the context of culture change interventions within cultural climates of organisational enclosure, this strong tendency to default to the adjacent probable leads to what I call “cultural feedback”. This is when we systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change, despite (or often because of) our best intentions. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational or institutional practice are what take their toll on employee engagement, organisational direction, and the health of the organisation’s future. They strain the social contract by limiting the expectations and quality of the social contract. If defaulting to the adjacent probable runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure, the need for helpful culture change interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics of the cultural climate within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural equation.


Stephen Johnson. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation. London: Allen Lane.

The Elimination of Uncertainty: the engine of enclosure

The elimination of uncertainty ethos is what drives the cancer of “enclosure” at the heart of organisational practice. Enclosure is the accelerative and intensifying process in play when good organisations go bad and when bad organisations get worse. When left unchallenged, enclosure spreads, it deepens, and it corrodes the core cultural supports of your organisation, among them productivity, employee engagement, creativity, and trust. When this happens, it is “business as usual” that makes the unhelpful difference. Following the principles of the Cultural Climate Framework, an enclosing cultural climate comes with what I call the Organisational Enclosure Triad – an environment saturated with the elimination of uncertainty ethos tends also to be characterized by chronic heightened intensity, and by chronic heightened directivity. While there are many more features of enclosing cultural climates, these are the core drivers of unhelpful change within an organisational culture. These features, more than any others, are what will most affect the relational climate of the organisation.

One the difficulties within a business environment is that the three elements of the organisational enclosure triad are frequently to be found in the heart of workaday orthodoxy in accepted business practice. The logics of the triad are embedded within the language, habits, norms, and rules of much standard and recommended business practice. The challenge isn’t eliminating the presence of these elements, but in minimising their impact within the workplace.

It is important to note that while the “elimination” of uncertainty is to be avoided, the reduction of uncertainty is to be welcomed. Similarly, while chronic heightened intensity is to be avoided, occasional intensity at appropriate times is to be welcomed. And while chronic heightened directivity could lead to all sorts of problems, occasional directive strategic interventions might sometimes be very appropriate. It’s about avoiding the extremes of elimination, intensity, and directivity without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Organisational Enclosure Triad redux

Cultural Climate and Culture Change

Cultural climate is the key driver of behaviour and expectations within organisations.

The most important dimension of an organizational culture might be characterised as its “cultural climate”, or, in shorthand, the personality of an organization. The cultures of organizations differ in the way that each person has a different personality, that is, a dynamic pattern of variation in attitude, behaviour, and social interaction that tends to be consistent over long periods. The better you understand the personality of your organization, the better you will be able to respond to the challenges it faces.

To speak of “a cultural climate”, then, is to speak of the dispositional quality of a particular organisational culture, considered in comparison to other organisational cultures or to other times or places within the same organisation. In colloquial terms, the cultural climate of an organisation here means, “what has tended to happen, what tends to happen, and what will tend to happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time).

“Culture change” is the process of actively intervening to change the cultural climate of an organisation, and supporting that process by way of due diligence, due patience, and due care. To effect a dispositional shift in the cultural climate of an organisation takes time. It also takes sensitive leadership. Until the cultural climate, the personality, of the organisation changes, nothing substantially changes.

The notion of change can be thrown around meaninglessly so that change becomes a welcome, unconditional good, and eternally necessary. Sometimes the term is used as if change is something other than that which ordinarily happens – change becomes rare and difficult to achieve, making it the sacred preserve of the creative few. In the other extreme, change can be considered ever-present, constant flux inescapable; life becomes so saturated with change and impermanence that little we can do truly makes a difference. Change becomes more meaningful when it is thought of as ordinary, possible, and available in everything we do.

Culture change is one of the more radical approaches you can choose to change your organization. Culture change involves identifying, evaluating, and actively changing the personality or personality traits of your organisation so that they better suit the aims, aspirations, and potential of your company, and so they better support the potential and possibilities of everyone in the organisation. At its best, organisational culture change positively affects productivity, innovation, sustainability, and emotional health simultaneously.

8 First Principles of “Culture Change”

For me, there are eight First Principles of Culture Change which provide the dynamic bedrock upon which all else builds:

1. Hereness: To understand the dynamic patterns within a situation, it is important to acknowledge your own place within those dynamics. Grounding yourself in “being here” is a crucial starting point.

2. Withness: It is impossible to make true sense of the culture of a situation unless you acknowledge that “being here” is also “being with”, whether with people or in relationship to the context or environment in which you find yourself. Acknowledging the cultural context of interrelationship provides a strong basis for cultural change.

3. Subtle Power: This refers to “the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another”. This is the most effective understanding of power with which to enact culture change. Subtle Power allows anyone within the situation to occupy a “position of power”; power becomes ever-present – no-one can ever be thought to work from a position of powerlessness.

4. Nearness: Each person’s experience of the culture of a particular environment is always local, specific, and personal. Through what a person experiences as near-at-hand, subtle power combines with hereness and withness, as each person is invited to an acknowledgment of their own agency, or response-ability, within a located reality.

5. Change Happens: It just does. And it doesn’t stop. And it doesn’t always look like change. And it’s not always helpful. But it can be.

6. The Relational Field: If you listen to how Subtle Power happens you soon come an understanding that each moment is a play of influences and influencing. This, the relational field, is where culture change happens. It is impossible to understand culture change without some understanding of the relational field.

7. Change Isn’t The Aim: If change simply happens, then the aim of culture change isn’t change, but, rather, particular kinds of change – it is important to be clear about what qualities of change you want to happen, and, perhaps more importantly, what kinds of change you don’t want. If the purpose for culture change isn’t clear and transparent, the culture change process can be confused, frustrating, and divisive.

8. Participation: To the extent that we acknowledge Subtle Power and the presence of a relational field, to that extent we also quickly come to acknowledge that we, too, play a part in the relational field, that we each exercise power, and that we each play our own part in the enactment of culture change. This is the heart of the notion, “Be the change you want to see.”

Speaking at Tangible Ireland

I can confirm that I will be speaking at the Tangible Ireland Ambassador Summer School (20-22 August, 2013) at Deebert House, Kilmallock, Co. Limerick on the theme of “Leadership for Change Management”.

Tangible Ireland was founded by Raymond Sexton in 2001 initially as a boutique business development consultancy and has evolved to an organisation consisting of a wide and diverse network of independent business and civic leaders committed to promoting collaborative leadership, shared excellence and a ‘pay it forward’ philosophy. The network is based in Ireland and works collaboratively at home, with the global Irish abroad, and with all who embrace the Tangible Ireland philosophies and approaches. More information about the Ambassador Summer School can be found at and for more about Tangible Ireland generally join the Tangible Ireland page on Facebook.

The Challenge of Culture Change

For a business to achieve what it sets out to achieve it is crucial to foster a strong, healthy, and culturally sustainable organisational environment. When resilience, engagement, productivity, and improvement are the outcomes promised by culture change, it is easy to say that culture change is needed. Working out what this means in practice is much harder, and one of the recurring challenges of business.

Culture change is about people – what they think, how they feel, what they do. You can restructure, rebrand, and reorganise, you can change the language of the workplace and re-arrange the furniture; but if the cultural climate of the organisation doesn’t substantially shift, then all you are left with are a series of very expensive cosmetic changes, even higher levels of employee cynicism, and a greater culture-change challenge.

How does an organisational culture defeat the best intentions of its leadership? How does an organisation slide from a career of excellence towards a cultural climate of employee dissatisfaction, low productivity, and stagnation? How can we understand the dynamics of culture change enough to enable us to not only understand what’s going wrong, but to provide us with clear guidance for pragmatically and effectively ameliorating organisational problems?

The interventions of culture change are called for in times of difficulty, stagnation, or crisis. Complex organisations, bureaucratic systems, and institutional practice have shown themselves over centuries to be well suited to facilitating the particular demands of business, profit, and economic growth. However, latent within organisations, bureaucracies, and institutions is a structural logic that consistently undermines the best intentions of the people within them. One of the key challenges of organisational leadership is balancing the benefits of organisational life, the gravities of organisational stricture, and the more personal dynamics of social interaction. Finding a balance is not impossible, but it remains improbable so long as the tenor of the cultural climate is driven most by goal-achievement, command-and-control, chronic high pressure, and financial growth rather than a more integrative understanding of cultural sustainability.

Most organisations committed to culture change focus on changing visible norms, customs, and behaviours within their organisation, which tend to have little impact on performance. A large number of small-scale changes may not effect the necessary shifts in the organisational environment to embed true, lasting, meaningful change.